From India to N.O.: Home cook focuses on fresh

By Beth Donze

Whenever she visits her family back home in India, one of the first things Karen Fernandes asks for is a succulent vegetarian stew brimming with mushrooms plucked from the hillsides of the coastal town where she grew up.

“We make it with lots of spices, so say you want to make chicken curry – you would just substitute mushrooms for the chicken,” explained Fernandes, listing other ingredients that she craves from her homeland, such as fresh coconut, bamboo shoots and the purple blossoms of the banana plant, the latter of which adds texture and flavor to lentil dishes.

I dream of mushrooms

“The taste and the aroma when you’re cooking (Indian mushrooms) is totally different from the mushrooms we have here in the United States. They’re more earthy,” Fernandes said. “It’s like meat because it’s so chunky.”

While Fernandes can’t find the coveted fungi of her childhood in New Orleans, her home for the last 21 years, the St. Pius X parishioner said there is no reason for heartiness or flavor to be sacrificed on Lenten Fridays.

Fernandes, a meat-eater who abstains from both meat and seafood all 40 days of Lent, shared a couple of robust entrées from her home kitchen in the city’s East Lakeshore neighborhood: channa masala, made with subtly spiced, protein-packed garbanzo beans (chickpeas); and palak paneer, the Indian twist on creamed spinach, bulked up with paneer (a cheese made from strained, curdled milk) or its closest substitute, tofu.

“Unlike previously, when we had to buy organic foods from specialty stores, places like Walmart, Target, Winn-Dixie and Costco now carry them,” Fernandes notes, pointing to her organic go-tos of green beans, butternut squash, cucumbers (used in the palate-cleansing side dish called “raita”), Brussels sprouts and broccoli.

An Asian market on the West Bank supplies Fernandes with harder-to-find, home-grown vegetables such as red-leafed spinach and long beans, while Metairie’s International Market provides “all the vegetables and spices that we use,” Fernandes said. “If you can’t find something (the manager) will bring it in,” she adds.

Ubiquitous coconut

Fernandes grew up in the southwestern Indian state of Karnataka, where her grandfather founded a family-run hotel in 1881. It was there, at her mother’s side, that Fernandes learned how to cook the region’s famous fish dishes cooked with fresh coconut.

“My mum actually wrote recipes for magazines,” said Fernandes, who came to the United States in 1990 so that Jason, her husband of 32 years, could attend graduate school.

“In everything we use coconut: we use coconut to garnish our vegetables; we use coconut in our curries; we use coconut oil to fry the fish,” she said.

“We come from a coastal town so the staple food is fish,” Fernandes added. “The fish is fresh every day – no frozen fish or anything. Every home had a different way of making their (curried) fish.”

Coconut also flavors Fernandes’ butternut squash, which like mushrooms, easily absorbs Indian spices and eats like meat.

“It is so easy. I just steam it with the onions and tomato and I put a little cayenne and turmeric and a little grated coconut and the dish is done,” she said, directing cooks to the frozen food aisle of the grocery store, near the pie crusts.

“(There) you can get the frozen grated coconut with no added sweetening; it’s not the desiccated coconut commonly used in baking,” she explained.

Fernandes, whose last name reflects the Portuguese influence of the Catholic enclave in which she grew up, cringes a bit when Americans refer to all Indian foods as “curry” because so many different spices go into the cuisine. For example, garlic is the main spice used in pork dishes, “to counterbalance the cholesterol” of the high fat content, she said.

“In all Indian cooking we use ginger and garlic a lot,” Fernandes said. Meat dishes always feature garam masala, a blend of dry-roasted spices including cloves, cardamom and cinnamon; vegetarian dishes incorporate coriander, turmeric and cayenne; and fish dishes use the same spice group as vegetarian recipes, with the addition of garlic and coconut milk.

Given these nuances, Fernandes encourages novice Indian cooks to familiarize themselves with  the origin  plants of the various spices. For example, many cooks do not realize that coriander seeds are the seeds of the cilantro plant.

“Back home everything is ground fresh,” she said. “Many of my friends grind their spices every day.”

For a selection of Karen Fernandes’ favorite Lenten recipes, pick up the March 3 Clarion Herald this weekend.

Indian-born Karen Fernandes, a parishioner of St. Pius X Church in New Orleans, prepares a variety of tasty dishes in her home kitchen. Clockwise, from top left: basmati rice pilaf, palak (spinach) paneer, butternut squash, cucumber-tomato raita and channa (garbanzo bean) masala.


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